Appointments speak volumes about Trump’s leadership
The nasty public war between Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson underscores one of the biggest reasons for the problems besetting this administration: the president’s poor personnel choices.
From White House chief of staff to secretary of state, Trump has proved far less adept in hiring people than he was at firing them on his reality television show. The result: an array of top aides predictably ill-suited for their positions.
His unexpected victory meant he had to pick officials with little forethought, forcing him to fall back on past business associates, conservative ideologues recommended by his vice president and his own questionable instincts. Besides the Marine generals he named to run the defense and homeland security departments, most initial personnel decisions proved to be poor.
Here are the most egregious examples:
White House Chief of Staff: Trump picked Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus, who lacked the managerial experience to supervise an inexperienced president and staff. A product of today’s political partisanship, Priebus also lacked the bipartisan contacts needed to successfully deal with Capitol Hill. At a personal level, he proved unable to cope with Trump’s chaotic modus operandi. The installation of retired Gen. John Kelly in the job has corrected at least some initial management problems.
Chief White House Strategist: By selecting selfstyled bomb-thrower Steve Bannon as the chief of staff’s co-equal, Trump ensured the staff dysfunction of his first six months. The joint choice seemed patterned after how Ronald Reagan simultaneously picked Jim Baker and Edwin Meese as top White House aides; Baker’s superior political skills overcame Meese’s administrative shortcomings to create a highly effective operation. But this time it failed, and Priebus and Bannon made early departures.
National Security Adviser: Despite a reputation for not working well with others, Gen. Mike Flynn got the job coordinating national security, thanks to being an early Trump supporter and a firebrand campaigner. But he lasted just weeks, fired because he lied about dealings with Russia that remain potential problems for Trump.
Press Secretary: A veteran Washington political public-relations operative who joined Priebus in throwing in with Trump, Sean Spicer seemed a logical choice. But he lost credibility by bowing to Trump’s demands and telling repeated untruths, and his combative personality undercut his effectiveness. Sarah Sanders has a more even temperament, but her briefings provide little insight into Trump’s thoughts or plans.
Secretary of State: Picked partly because he “looked like” a secretary of state, Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil executive, has proved a poor fit both for Trump, with whom he disagrees on crucial issues, and the State Department, whose expertise he doesn’t understand and whose structure he seems hellbent on revamping. His inevitable successor will face a tough task, both in coexisting with Trump and undoing Tillerson’s damage at Foggy Bottom.
Attorney General: Also appointed because he was an early Trump supporter, former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions drew the president’s ire by recusing himself from the Russia investigation. After barely keeping his job, Sessions seems determined to regain Trump’s support by undermining the department’s historic role in fighting discrimination and institutionalizing ultra-conservative views that are even extreme by current GOP standards.
Secretary of Health and Human Services: One of the House’s most rabid ideologues, former Georgia Rep. Tom Price proved a walking conflict of interest, from his stock trading in drug companies as a congressman to his inappropriate use of expensive private aircraft for personal and political trips. His House background proved of little help in selling the administration’s flawed health care bill to the Senate.
Along with the secretary of defense, where Trump scored high with retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, and the secretary of the treasury, these are among the most important jobs in government. Given Trump’s narrow knowledge, instinctive approach and lack of experienced advisers, his troubles were predictable. Some lesser choices also made little sense, like putting pediatric surgeon Ben Carson in charge of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Other selections, like Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, are technically qualified but are creating long-term damage by dismantling decades of environmental protection, to the delight of the business community.
Trump has never understood that running the U.S. government requires teamwork among many experienced officials. It’s not a one-man operation, no matter how much his tweets dominate political dialogue.